“That’s Not My Reality:” Millennial Narratives In Literature

By Kenneth Miller

Courtesy of Huffington Post

Courtesy of Huffington Post

Humorist and writer Ryan O’Connell got his big break while lying naked in bed with only his laptop sported on his chest. He didn’t have to leave the comforting confines of his meticulously-packed studio apartment because the Internet was his employer, and was all he really needed. 

As a self-described “professional feeler of emotions,” O’Connell is one member of a slewing list of Internet writers who gets paid to detail the evermore silly traumas plaguing the worlds of Millennials everywhere. Producing articles that cite the horrors that followed after his first anonymous hookup via a popular gay dating app, as well as the bizarre experiences he has shared with his Uber driver at 2 a.m., these stories appear to be mediocre clickbait garbage that any journalism 101 professor would shame their students over immediately. But there’s something a whole lot more significant than meets the Baby Boomer eye with these personal narratives. Something a lot bigger.

Internet writers who contribute immensely personal stories to online publications like Thought Catalog, Broadly, and Medium have been quoted calling their work “contributions to the Millennial narrative.” These stories, once collected and viewed by millions of online vagabonds, begin to go viral and—well, just about create stifling loads of pandemonium in households across the globe, with “Mommy, don’t look!” chronicles spanning from one’s first blowjob to accounts on one’s first time snorting cocaine in the bathroom of a sleazy Brooklyn bar. 

These individual narratives by countless Generation Y folks hadn’t poked at enough conservative elders until their stories began getting optioned by publishing houses and, consequentially, gained a sense of legitimacy within the industry. 

Critics from The LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, and many self-established WordPress blogs have taken to judging these now published essay collections through highbrow companies like Penguin Group and Random House, questioning whether or not they serve any real purpose for the larger scheme of society and even deserve a spot on the bookshelves of retailers like Barnes & Noble. 

For Ryan O’Connell, his life got all the more interesting once he signed off on a book deal with Simon & Schuster, and released his first collection of personal essays entitled I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves in the summer of 2015. Inside, longtime fans of O’Connell discovered that, in addition to his struggle with his body image in relation to society’s gay male archetype, their favorite funny man is living with cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder affecting one’s movement, muscle tone, and posture.

The collection of 16 long-form essays are sprinkled among tongue-in-cheek paragraphs, photos from O’Connell’s youth, and listicles with click-or-die headlines that detail all things youngsters can expect as they emerge out of their mother’s coddling arms and into the “real world.” It includes stories covering his abysmal life as an intern for publications like Interview Magazine, and spirals into accounts of his substance addiction that contradicted the somewhat picturesque life he seemed to be living as a 20-something-year-old in the Big Apple.   

Anna Warner (a literary critic on Tumblr) said she initially enjoyed O’Connell’s approach to Millennial issues, but eventually found his work to be too general and uninteresting. She said, “then it took a turn [for the worst] and I just found him irritating and making grossly inaccurate generalizations about entire generations and types of people.”

A large issue many readers take with these narratives is the idea that the writer’s individual experiences account for all those in the same scenario, sometimes finding the stories to be the farthest thing from relatable. This especially comes to a head when the work's intention is to appeal to a particular group and educate those who fall outside of it. This is not nearly as big of a quandary as critics cite it to be, for these texts are wholly subjective and speak to an individual truth that, if anything, is worth the binding of its pages and placement on a bookshelf. 

Earlier in 2015, author and amateur “Melrose Place historian” Una LaMarche released her fourth book, Unabrow, a memoir detailing her life as a Millennial late bloomer and adolescent with visibly dark facial hair. The young mom, who has been published on the New York Times, The New York Observer, and The Huffington Post, included her own doodles and cartoon etchings in her latest book’s pages, as she demonstrated for readers how she strives to be body positive while the Western world’s beauty standards deem her unattractive and even repulsive. 

Touching upon how technology had shaped her interpersonal relationships as she developed in a lonesome town, to how she continues to deal with being classified as either a martyr or a MILF as a parent, Lamarch represents a voice that many apprehensive 90s kids wish they had the courage to widely utilize. Many long form essays are interposed between chapters that are essential lifeline instructional lists like Chapter 11, “Free to Be Poo and Pee: A Guide to Public Restroom Usage for Classy Ladies.” 

Meredith Maran, literary critic for The Chicago Tribune, felt uneasy after reading LaMarche’s latest release, seemingly unaware as to what to make of the essay collection. Although admitting to having laughed many times during the read, Maran finds little worth in the actual plot. “Truth be told," she wrote, "LaMarche is as unreliable a narrator as they come, and her book is unlikely to change your life.”

There’s skepticism because LaMarche’s story isn’t all true…well, only teeny details aren’t. She, like many originating online writers (LaMarche’s claim to fame is a viral tweet that Lena Dunham “liked”) spurs from the overly exaggerated tales of one’s life that she admits in the memoir’s prologue, “Una…this is wrong;” pointedly noting that some of her memories (like all of ours) are partially fabricated by our mind’s catering to our personal liking of a particular situation’s outcome. Her source: she took a science class in college once.

Nonetheless, LaMarche’s storytelling capabilities trump whatever critics may hold against the misfortunate tales of Millennials coping with life in the modern age. This is her truth and no one else’s. 

Additionally, critics seem to be lukewarm to stories that derive from Millennial socialization, like Charlie McDowell’s 2013 release Dear Girls Above Me. McDowell, whose fame originated from his Twitter account that shares the same name as his book, gives readers a step-by-step outline as to what made his tweets so priceless, with the two typical valley girls that lived in the apartment above him as his main material.

Overhearing the two women’s considerably ignorant approach to topics including politics, pop culture, and everyday life, McDowell captured in 140-characters or less what he earwigged, eventually scoring a book deal with Random House to publish the whole story with a fairly larger word count.

With over 200 pages to fill, McDowell took on how running the “Dear Girls Above Me” Twitter account affected his love, social, and work life, in addition to some added details on the budding relationship he consequentially started to create with the girls upstairs.

“Does that make for a compelling book?” literary critic Cecilee Linke asks in a review for SFF Audio. “I’m not entirely sure.”

Linke furthers her argument, finding Millennial social media updating to be synonymous with boredom and of minimal public interest. There’s no real intrigue behind what this guy happens to hear going on above him and how that affected the scheme of his life, she insinuates. And is she right? Yeah, probably. 

But literature is meant to establish a sense of unity within society and strike a shared experience of sorts among a people. It’s hard to combat the logic behind what fuses a community of Millennials and the traumas they are encountering since it’s a generation focalized around technology.

Millennials are constantly seen trying to spit out their stories to platforms willing to hand them a piece of that revelrous pie that would ultimately document their unique story, whether that be in a tweet, essay, or book. This mindset is parallel with the idea that every voice should be heard, which is wise in concept but impossible in practice. Society can attempt to observe the difficulties unique to the individual. But nonetheless, the dialogues must be relative to all in order to be a considerable success.

Generation Y is the first collection of people able to take charge of their image and warp it into whichever way they may desire or find applicable in a particular situation. They are able to make someone believe their life is a certain way, and if the outsider (or reader) takes the bait, then it becomes truth—which, in essence, is great literature.